After talks with EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier in Brussels on Thursday (13 July), British opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn told journalists he would fight to protect jobs and citizens’ rights, and that he was “surprised” at the Commission’s decision to oust some UK national experts.
Corbyn’s first visit to the EU capital since the June general election, in which he robbed UK Prime Minister Theresa May of her parliamentary majority, was designed to show the Commission that the Labour Party is waiting in the wings to take over the Brexit talks if May’s government falls.
The Labour leader stressed that his two meetings with Barnier and Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans, in which he was accompanied by Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott and Shadow Brexit Secretary Kier Starmer, were “not negotiations” but “frank and very instructive” discussions.
“Government in waiting”
“Labour is a government in waiting,” Corbyn said ahead of Thursday’s meetings.
After leaving the Commission, he told journalists the EU’s negotiator had “understood our position that we are anxious to have a trade arrangement with the EU that makes sure there can be a continuation of our huge trade in goods and services.”
Corbyn added that he had taken the clear line that the Labour Party would “negotiate to protect jobs”.
But when pressed on what a Labour-led “jobs-first” Brexit would look like and whether he would support remaining in the EU if it became clear that leaving would lead to job cuts in the UK, the Labour leader became evasive.
“The difference between us and the Conservatives is that we are not threatening Europe, we are trying to work with Europe,” he said. “But at the same time, we made it very clear that we accept the result of the referendum and will be leaving the European Union.”
Earlier this year, Socialists and Democrats group (S&D) sources in the European Parliament told EURACTIV.com “We will provide [Labour] with information regarding the negotiations as they cannot rely on the government.”
The Labour leader confirmed that this cooperation with other European socialist parties was taking place.
He said it had helped his party gain “an understanding of what is really going on, the attitudes within the parliament and the need for us to have a good and effective relationship with Europe’s governments and oppositions”.
“I have done my best to persuade them to support British nationals having the right to remain in the EU and the right to receive healthcare as well as pensions and any other payments they need,” he added.
Disappointment over seconded national experts decision
Asked whether the Commission was right to demand the resignation a number of the UK’s seconded national experts (SNEs) – British civil servants on short-term postings to the EU executive – Corbyn said, “I had hoped that all employment opportunities here would continue until we do actually leave, so I was a bit surprised.”
A row erupted between Brussels and the British government earlier this week when the Commission called on a handful of Britain’s SNEs to resign in order to protect the EU’s strategic interests in sensitive chapters of the Brexit negotiations.
The British government hit back that the UK would remain a full member of the EU until the conclusion of the Brexit negotiations, and that as such it should retain all the rights and obligations of a member state. “This includes seconding national experts to the EU institutions,” a government spokesperson said.